EU Students and Temporary Workers Are Shunning UK After Brexit

 The UK’s proportion of short-term residents from the European Union has plummeted since Brexit, census data show.

Of the 136,000 non-UK-born people who were living in England and Wales on census day in March 2021 and planned to stay for less than a year, just a quarter was from the EU. That’s down from 35% in 2011, according to the figures published by the Office for National Statistics on Wednesday. 

The result left China as the most common country of birth for short-term residents, taking the top spot from India. It highlights how Britain’s vote to leave the EU in 2016 has changed the composition of the population and dried up what had been a steady stream of workers that the UK relied on.

The number of short-term residents in 2021 was 59,000 lower than in 2011. The slide in numbers hints at the challenge for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who is trying to keep a promise to bear down immigration while also supplying the economy with enough workers and allowing British universities to draw in high-fee-paying students from abroad.

Far More Of The UK's Short-Term Residents Are Now From China

Top countries of birth for short-term residents in 2021

Source: Office for National Statistics

Values are a percentage of the total in each year


The fall in the number of EU short-term residents indicates that students from the continent may have begun to shun the UK since the 2016 Brexit vote. The UK pulled out of the EU’s Erasmus program, which helped to fund studying abroad.

Tomasz Wieladek, the chief European economist at investment manager T. Rowe Price Group Inc, said uncertainty about whether the UK would continue to participate in schemes such as the EU’s Horizon Europe, which funds research and innovation, may have deterred students from coming to stay.

Many EU residents may also have felt less welcome in the UK since Brexit, he said, although he hoped that improved diplomatic relations between the UK and Brussels would “change people’s attitudes about coming here.”

But while EU students may be turning their back on the UK, the country remained popular with Chinese visitors. People born there now make up 44% of the short-term residents who are non-working students, up from 20% in 2011.

Nearly Half Of the Short-Term Residents Are Inactive Students

Source: Office for National Statistics

In total, the proportion of the UK’s short-term residents from China jumped from 11% in 2011 to 21% a decade later. Romania also climbed the ranks to be the third most common country of birth for short-term residents. In 2011, it didn’t even feature in the top 10.

Labor Market

The lower number of short-term visitors in 2021 may partly have been a factor of the Covid pandemic, which put travel plans on hold and caused swathes of foreign-born residents to return to their home country.

But it may also be a factor in the UK’s stricter immigration policy. The Conservative government adopted a new points-based immigration system at the start of 2021, adding to the hurdles for those who wish to get a visa.

The falling number of temporary foreign workers adds to the squeeze on the UK’s labor market at a time when employers are struggling to find staff. While many overseas citizens come to the UK short-term to study, others also arrive to work or care for the family. In 2021, 28% of short-term residents over the age of 16 were working or looking for work.

The UK Lost More Than 50,000 EU Citizens Last Year

Source: Office for National Statistics

Note: Net migration is the difference between long-term arrivals and departures

Restaurants and other hospitality businesses, particularly in London, complained in the aftermath of the pandemic that the casual workers they relied upon were in short supply. This meant they were having to pay higher wages, which in turn was adding to the decades-high inflation rate.

The UK is an outlier among most other major advanced economies in that its labor force is still smaller than it was pre-pandemic. A report from credit rating agency Fitch Ratings on Wednesday estimated that the workforce would have been around 2.5% bigger by now if it had grown at its 2015-2019 trend rate, adding on another 900,000 workers.

According to a separate survey from Yougov on Wednesday, 81% of Britons believe the government is handling immigration badly following a spell of migrants arriving in small boats crossing the English Channel. 

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